Here we go! The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a reading I think we all discreetly dreaded beginning being that the text is more rigid; rich with vocabulary. I can now say that it’s actually quite a page-turner, as I find myself more and more drawn to this backwards and unjust society, or the Republic of Gilead as Atwood names it. These women; Handmaids, are literally objects; vessels kept around for the sole purpose of procreation. In Atwood’s world, time seems to have undone the work generations of women have fought for; rights that truly belong to any human at birth and for the duration of their lives. The right to think freely, act freely and simply BE seems to have vanished from any woman with the ability to reproduce. Atwood paints a vivid picture of a very possible future with this record from Offred’s point of view written during a time of political and religious turmoil.
A Handmaid, at a glance:
There is no question how little this society wants to see of any woman. Within the first chapter, I instantly compared Offred’s routine details to that of a prisoner. They were being controlled by the very own law; exploited for their reproductive capabilities, prohibited from free will and any kind of self-expressive lifestyle. The very clothing they wore was a blood-red, highly distinguishable uniform.”Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle length…the white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen”, (Atwood 8). Through Offred’s thoughts, we can feel the hands of a suppressive government that held tight restraints on every aspect of her. Her mind is possibly all that she has left, as well as memories of her former lifestyle where short skirts, makeup and loose hair was a norm; some of the many liberties of a free woman. These women were repurposed as baby-making machines; no longer human, no longer allowed to act like one. The encounter with Offred and the Guardians on page 22 shows the true constrictions on their livelihood and natural human instincts. With just seconds of eye contact that was barely allowed, Offred internally rages with sexual temptation since she is restricted from expressing such feelings.
These names themselves suggest that Handmaids are literal property, belonging perhaps to the man for which they will reproduce, or someone deeper we have yet to discover. As we conclude chapter one, we learn that these women exchange names inaudibly by watching each others mouth movement: “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June”, (Atwood 4). This chapter seems to be a flashback to the origin of Handmaids before they are Handmaids, as they still have their own names; not attached to a “Fred” or a “Glen”. This reminded me of marriage; the way married women are often renamed “Mrs. (Husband’s Name Here), as if a woman is the physical property of a man once a paper is signed. I was also reminded of how poor the circumstances of marriage were surrounding the times before women received many of our rights; a time around the creation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. Women were seen almost equivalent to purchased land, as they were tied to their owners, (husbands), by a signature on a marriage certificate. Women during this time were manipulated and controlled; often birthing several children while mainly staying home, as jobs that hired women were scarce.
Wives VS Handmaids
As for the women who cannot reproduce in these times, the Wives lead task-less, easy going lives as they are lacking of the vital ability to have their own babies. The fact that a Handmaid goes through 9 months with child means nothing to the Wives, as the situation is described as a “business transaction”, (Atwood 15). The Handmaids and Wives are furthest from friends and they seem to envy one another’s lifestyles: The Wives envy the Handmaid’s for being capable of breeding and the Handmaid’s envy the Wives for their effortless routines. Besides the endless knitting the Wives seem to be accountable for, there was basically nothing else. “It’s good to have small goals that can easily be attained”, (Atwood 13). I would assume the Wives are also jealous due to the sense of purposelessness they must feel in a society where Handmaids are held with priority.
This is a photo from the critically acclaimed Hulu series based from the novel. “Your body is no longer your own.”